The Amazon fires are a policy issue, not a livestock issue. Here’s why.
By Lauren Manning, Esq., LL.M
Headlines are swirling with claims that the world’s meat consumption is to blame for fires in the Amazon, but a further look into NASA’s data on the subject shows that the fires aren’t out of the ordinary and, more importantly, that farmers aren’t targeting old-growth rain forest but existing farmland instead.
NASA released images showing fires in the region around August 21 and noted that “it is not unusual to see fires in Brazil at this time of year due to high temperatures and low humidity.” The agency continued by stating that “time will tell if this year is a record-breaking or just within normal limits.”
Further confusing the issue, some people are sharing photographs of the Amazon from over thirty years ago under the guise that they depict present-day happenings. French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted a misleading viral photo last week that has been retweeted over 40,000 times. The photo was taken in 2003. And while many of the photos included some reference to the Amazon as “the lungs of the Earth,” a noted rainforest expert and founder of the Earth Innovation Institute, Dan Nepstad, pointed out that all plant life contributes to oxygen production -- including cattle pastures.
Deforestation in the Amazon has been a protracted topic for several years. Much of the tension behind deforestation in the Amazon and livestock production spurs from inconsistent policymaking and patchwork enforcement of existing protections at the government level. Current President Jair Bolsonaro described the country’s expansive protected forestlands as an obstacle to economic growth during his campaign last year and made promises to remove protections so that the land could be available for commercial exploitation. So far, President Bosonaro is making good on that promise, with Brazil losing over 1,330 square miles of forest cover during the first six months of 2019.
The US’ current trade war with China and other countries has also increased Brazil’s demand for exports as China has started purchasing soybeans from Brazil instead of the US. China is already Brazil’s biggest export market for beef, with about 22% of its exports to the tune of $47 billion flowing from Brazil to China each year, dominated by soybeans.
Livestock Production Helps Preserve Native Ecosystems in the Amazon
Although the Cerrado is considered poor agricultural production land, the arrival of inputs like fertilizer and genetically modified crops like soybeans have opened the region to commodity-scale production. Sugarcane, corn, and cotton are also common crops in the region. Roughly three-quarters of the crops produced are used for animal feed, highlighting an additional policy issue regarding the widespread reliance on feed crops to produce meat in lieu of grass-fed meat produced using managed grazing practices, which sequesters carbon and supports ecosystem health. (It’s not the cow, it’s the how.)
For people in the Cerrado, however, agriculture is a primary economy and way of life. Finding ways to reduce harmful deforestation in the reason while ensuring that the local residents will still have a way to support themselves is a complex process. Roughly 35% to 55% of the Brazilian cattle herd lives in the Cerrado and some 60 million hectares were dedicated to pasture usage as of 2016.
Moreover, livestock are well-suited to graze many portions of the Cerrado, particularly when it comes to cattle’s ability to graze native vegetation and provide income to landowners. The careful management of livestock grazing in the region can actually help protect and maintain native vegetation and habitat in the region.
Some companies like Inga Tree are working on integrated crop-livestock systems that allow residents of the region to continue livestock and crop cultivation using regenerative agriculture practices that enhance soil fertility and maintain wildlife habitat. Sustainable Dish interviewed Inga Tree founder, Mike Hands, in a recent podcast about his efforts to spread a farming practice known as alley cropping in the region, which he developed after years of scientific research into slash and burn farming.
With consumer attention on sustainably produced food products mounting, several stakeholders have taken action and launched corporate sustainability initiatives to reduce their environmental footprint in the Amazon. Cargill recently pledged $30 million to help mitigate deforestation in the region, for example, and a number of other major stakeholders have aligned their interests to address deforestation including a coalition of investors and food companies that signed a Statement of Support for the “Cerrado Manifesto,” which sends a clear signal to the market that zero-deforestation food products are a priority.
The US does not currently accept imports of Brazilian beef
Brazil is the world’s largest exporter of beef according to the United States Department of Agriculture, but the US has prohibited imports of Brazilian beef products since June 2017 when food safety concerns arose. The vast majority of the beef sold in the United States comes from the US, according to the USDA, with only 8% to 20% coming from foreign sources like Canada and Mexico. There are only 12 countries that can supply the US with raw beef products.
Canadian ranchers produce beef under many of the same industry standards used by US ranchers. Most Canadian beef imports consist of live cattle, while the US typically imports cattle from Mexico to be put on pasture or placed directly into feedlots for finishing.
Lauren Manning, Esq., LL.M., is an attorney and professor of agriculture law at the University of Arkansas School of Law where she teaches courses in farm animal welfare, farm succession planning, food safety law, and agricultural cooperatives. As a journalist, she has covered the food and agriculture space for four years with an emphasis on agriculture technology and venture capital investment, changing consumer preferences, livestock production, and regenerative agriculture. As a first-generation farmer, Lauren raises and direct markets grass-fed, pasture-raised beef, lamb, and goat meat in Northwest Arkansas. Follow Lauren on Instagram @WhiteHoofAcres